Don't Work Remote, Work Distributed

Tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Shopify have made headlines by declaring that they’re embracing remote work, causing many small and medium businesses to ask themselves: should we move from the traditional office towards remote work?

Unfortunately, if you’ve asked yourself this question you’re missing a critical piece of the puzzle that will cause your efforts to fail. Remote work isn’t the opposite of office work, it’s a companion of office work. Remote work isn’t attractive because you’re at home, it’s attractive because you have more flexibility and control. A better question to ask yourself: how can you create more flexibility and control for your team in and outside the office?

Why you should distribute work

Working remotely implies that while people can work outside the office, the office is the central hub. This mindset entrenches outdated assumptions on work which limit your team’s flexibility and cause friction.

A common example for companies new to remote work: a meeting happens, a big decision is made, and everyone goes on with their day. For those in the office, the barrier to communication is so low that the decision filters out to everyone organically. This isn’t the case for people working outside the office; they’re now working with outdated information that can cost them wasted time and frustration.

Traditional office teams rely on communication crutches that work for small teams in close contact, but cause problems as you grow or add remote workers. Information doesn’t spread itself - it must be consciously distributed to the people who need it. Instead of remote work, think about creating a distributed work environment; one in which everyone has the information they need to do their job on demand.

The 3 rules of distributed work

Distributed work has far-reaching implications; thinking about how it can be adopted in your team can be overwhelming. My advice is to start with easy-to-communicate strategic rules that can be applied day-to-day as issues pop up.

The following 3 rules are designed to bridge the gap between remote and office teammates by eliminating bottlenecks. I’ve used them with great success at companies large and small:

  1. Centralize knowledge
  2. Distribute decisions
  3. Keep a tight feedback loop

Centralizing knowledge is ensuring your team knows what to document and where. Decisions and actions from meetings can be documented in meeting minutes, which are filed on a shared cloud account like Dropbox. Actions can be transferred to a task-tracking system like Asana. Pertinent events and dates can be centralized on a shared online calendar like Google Calendar. By centralizing knowledge, you are ensuring your team has the information they need when they need it.

Distributing decisions empowers your team to create output even when missing information. In traditional teams, the leader can overrule any decision at any time, which can cause teammates frustration and rework. The result is a culture where output stops if the leader isn’t around. By distributing decisions, you make each teammate a leader of their own world. This gives them confidence they aren’t wasting their time, and helps them focus on getting things done.

Keeping a tight feedback loop helps your team improve over time, and adds a check on the previous rule. Decisions need to be paired with consequences. Feedback from leaders, peers, and customers is the fastest way to deliver consequences to decision-makers. This cycle of decisions and feedback will also help your team improve over time, by giving them a way to measure success. Regular feedback can turn an ordinary team into an exceptional one.

Distributed work is sustainable work

Distributed work may be a radical shift from the way you’re working now, but you can’t afford to ignore it. According to extensive Gallup research, millennials are now the largest generation in the labour force, and are 22x more likely to stay at workplaces that are flexible and trust them to make decisions. Beyond that, organizations that show interest in millennials as individuals are found to be 8x more agile and 7x more innovative than those who don’t.

Creating a distributed working environment is one step in creating a sustainable organization; one that is not only resilient in the face of change, but can actually thrive as a result. The recent pandemic has shown us just how quickly things can change. If you want your business to succeed in the long-term, consider taking small steps towards distributed work today - the benefits you create will multiply over time. Invest in your business by investing in your team.